School districts that fail to address the anxieties experienced by undocumented students as a result of federal immigration policies of the Trump administration may be violating their students’ constitutional rights to a meaningful education, said Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF).
Founded in 1968, the Los Angeles-based MALDEF is a leading civil rights organization advocating on behalf of Latinos in California and nationally. Saenz was referring to the widespread anxieties experienced by children who are either themselves undocumented or have one or both parents who are, and fear that they or their parents will be deported. Parents may be afraid to take their children to school, out of fear of being picked up by immigration authorities, or children may themselves experience generalized anxieties that affects their ability to learn, or to attend school at all.
“Clearly there are other things that cause anxiety, but this level of anxiety occasioned by immigration enforcement is completely unprecedented,” Saenz said in an interview with EdSource.
In the mid-1970s, MALDEF filed suit on behalf of undocumented students in Texas after the state allowed school districts to levy immigrant students to pay tuition to attend public school if they were not “legally admitted” to the United States. In the landmark Plyler v. Doe ruling in 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court held that states could not constitutionally deny students a free public education because of their immigration status. James Plyler was the superintendent of the Tyler Independent School District that charged undocumented students $1,000 annually to enroll in its schools.
Saenz said that if currently children’s anxieties are so high that it prevents them from attending school or affects their educational performance, “it is a denial of education, equivalent to charging tuition.”
“We do believe there is an obligation to ensure that every child will receive a meaningful education, and that his or her immigration status is not a barrier to that,” he said. “So if it is anxiety, or extreme fear (that affects a child’s education), it is in effect denying them a meaningful education, and we think that is a constitutional violation.”
In the Plyler v. Doe ruling, the court said that under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution “no state shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” By denying undocumented children “a basic education,” the court wrote, “we deny them the ability to live within the structure of our civic institutions, and foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of our nation.”
But Saenz said this was not just a legal issue, but an educational one as well. Unless schools address students’ anxieties, he said, “we will see dramatic falls in achievement data that will be clearly attributable to this anxiety, and as a system we will have done nothing to address it.” He referred to considerable research that shows that anxieties around a student’s immigration status, or that of his or her parents, can depress their ability to do well in school.
For example, in a 2013 paper, scholars from New York University, Harvard University and UCLA wrote that “the research to date suggests that parent undocumented status is associated with lower levels of children’s cognitive development and educational progress, across early childhood to early adulthood.” “Fear of parental removal,” they wrote, “can affect children regardless of whether the parent is actually arrested.”
Saenz said that concerns about children’s anxieties have received far less attention than the more technical issues of what grounds Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents may or may not have to enter a school campus, and whether or not children show up to school. “There has been so much focus on access, but not enough of a focus on (the impact) of this anxiety on education,” he said.
Several dozen California districts have passed resolutions to assure students and parents that schools will do what they can within the limits of the law to protect them from immigration authorities, and not identify them based on their immigration status. In some cases, districts have declared themselves “safe havens,” but it is unclear the extent to which these actions will assuage students’ anxieties.
He acknowledged the challenges that schools face in addressing students’ underlying fears. “I can understand that folks don’t necessarily know what to do, but that is not an excuse for the educational establishment not stepping up and doing what needs to be done,” he said.